Monday, January 17, 2022

The Flying Prince: Alexander Obolensky offers enchanting details about a rugby legend

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i correspondent Hugh Godwin explores the fascinating story of the Russian-born aristocrat who helped England beat the All-Blacks for the first time

Unfortunately, Alexander was born in 1916. In December 1918, with revolution and civil war swirling around them, the family fled to Riga with their now meager possessions – mainly a Fabergé cigarette case – where they boarded the Princess Margaret, a converted British minesweeper that sails to Millwall Docks.

Prince Alexander Sergeevich Obolensky had it all. His father, Prince Serge, was an officer in the Tsar’s army and head of a wealthy and well-connected family. And they were really very well connected with a princely line that went back to the ninth century.

Eighteen years later, Obolensky scored two attempts at Twickenham on his English rugby union debut when the host nation defeated mighty New Zealand for the first time. That afternoon, the winger became the first Russia-born England international in a sport.

After Millwall – as Hugh Godwin, I‘s rugby union correspondent often explains charming details in The Flying Prince – Obolensky’s short life was three-pronged: Byelorussian exile; financially troubled English gentleman; Rugby titan. Since the family was financially strained, Serge took a job in France as a representative of a mechanical engineering company. The company mainly paid for Alexander’s private education.

Obolensky’s world was unusual and refined. A lack of source material means Godwin is not completely safe from speculation, but he does lead us to the heart of this isolated world. In the best clichéd manner, the miserable, quarreling Russian exile community of Balalaikas jingled, drank too much vodka, longed for the old days, and wailed incessantly at the shameful activities they believed Stalin was up to.

Obolensky, however, welcomed Britain and its culture. Urban, moody, funny, and rather fleeting in spirit, he stormed to Oxford University, became a British citizen, and aspired to work in the civil service. His British life was marked by drunkenness, debutantes, whining invitations to social circles and unusual guest appearances by Boris Karloff, John Gielgud and David Niven.

He had looks, he had charm, but Obolensky’s romantic life
was still unsatisfactory, and Godwin suggests that he visit brothels during the British Lions tour of Argentina in the summer of 1936.
The love of his short life was Tatiana Vorontsov-Dachkov, an elderly Russian countess with an English degree from the Sorbonne. His parents disagreed, he surrendered to their bullying, and she quickly married someone else.

He’d only get fourth grade at Oxford, but his outstanding performance on the rugby field was blessed with unearthly pace, sublime handling, and an instinctive talent for tackling. As one newspaper wrote, he was “as fine a specimen of athletic masculinity as one could wish for”.

His exploits in the field, those classically beautiful facial features, his kangaroo leather boots and his exoticism made him a national hero. Without injuries, he would have played more than his four games in England.
Meanwhile, war threatened. Prince Serge sincerely hoped the Nazis would win just to lose the Soviet Union, but his son responded to the call of his adopted country and trained to be an RAF pilot.

After qualifying, he flew only 135 minutes with a Hawker Hurricane before completing a training flight over Suffolk on March 29, 1940. He landed too quickly, the plane overturned and 24-year-old Obolensky died instantly. He had just received his first draft to England in four years.

The flying prince, by Hugh Godwin, is published by Hodder & Stoughton for £ 20

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